I recently read that Russ Parsons, editor of the LA Times food section, owns two copies of all his favorite cookbooks. One copy is preserved for posterity, the other brought into the kitchen as a working stiff, available for spillage. I had to laugh. Practical? Not really, unless by practical you mean “sells more books.”
Proper chefs (something that, in all fairness, Mr. Parsons does not claim to be) are taught to never cook directly from a book. Recipes should be re-written onto a separate sheet, which is then carried into the kitchen and hung on the wall at eye level, or crammed into the pocket of your herringbone pants, along with your one good peeler and your sharpie.
This serves several purposes. The paper takes up less counter space (which is usually at a premium), and it keeps your books clean. (Although personally, I enjoy the nostalgia of a stain or two. They bring back fond memories of jobs, colleagues, restaurants, and my youth, all now gone the way of the floppy disc and Kajagoogoo.)
More importantly, recipes hand-copied from books are insurance against screwing up. It forces at least one read-through, which is something amateurs rarely do. As a culinary instructor I can tell you that 99.9% of recipe failures are due to user-error. Revving the kitchen-aids and cold-reading the recipes as you cook inevitably results in leaving out a step, leaving out an ingredient (which typically results in a forced excursion to the market by some poor innocent bystander), or simple hubristic wrongness.
This need to charge ahead without full knowledge is not just a plague of the kitchen. It is part of our National M.O., and occurs everywhere, from the voting booth to the backseats of cars. Currently this lack of preparation is being egged on by a new age of technology in the kitchen. It is bad enough that most people now get their recipes off the internet, where origin, authenticity, and accuracy are dubious at best. (Being an internet recipe provider, I guess I should be careful here). Now you can fire up iPhone apps to further enable your blind assault on food. Why bother to learn a thing when you can have it beamed directly to your head? And so, while I scoff at Russ Parsons for his dual-tome habits, at least he is still reading books.
My cookbook library reached its zenith years ago. Can we all just admit that there are too damn many cookbooks out there? (By the way, have you bought my recent addition to the onslaught, Mug Cakes?) In 1962 there were 850 cookbooks in print. So far, each year this century there has been an average of 3000 new books on cookery published every year. Putting aside for a moment my dream of writing the Great American Gustatory Opus, have there really been 3000 new breakthroughs in the world of food this year?
That is not to say I do not own cookbooks, because I sure as hell do. But, with the exception of the occasional flea market find (my latest being the hilarious Can Opener Recipes for the Casual Cook from 1951), I have stopped adding to my cookbook library. Still, I understand the Foody Nation’s insatiable hunger for cookbooks, and to that end, I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the most important cookbooks you should own. Use it to start your cookbook library, or legitimize the one you’ve already got.
Buy These Books
American Cookery by James Beard (Little, Brown, 1972) Like America itself, this book is a melting pot. Beard is the Father of American Cookery, and this is why.
Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco by Paula Wolfert (Harper and Row, 1973) I love all Ms Wolfert’s books. She is hands down the authority on Mediterranean cooking, and is reason you can find couscous at Vons.
The Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron’s 1995) I keep several copies of this book – one in my office, one in the kitchen, and one in the car, because you never know when you might need to look up “flummery” or “shamogi.”
The Gastronomical Me, by MFK Fisher (Harper and Brothers, 1939) The beautiful prose of this (and her other volumes, including Serve it Forth, An Alphabet for Gourmets, Consider the Oyster, How to Eat a Wolf) recount a life-long love of food. It’s perfect for cultivating culinary snobbery.
Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne (Clarkson Potter, 2001) More commonly known as Larousse, after the French publishing house that first produced it in 1938, it is the premier culinary encyclopedia, proof read by August Escoffier himslef. I am on the lookout for an old edition that has – I am told – an amazingly gory engraving of turtle soup preparation.
The Good Cook series (Time-Life Books, 1980) This series is so extraordinarily detailed, photographed, and diagrammed, it should be required reading for anyone learning to cook. Twenty-eight volumes cover everything culinary, including all meats, eggs, sauces, soups, snacks, fruits, vegetables, beverages, and a supplement on kitchen organization. Also worth noting from the Time-Life people (c. 1968) is the twenty-seven-volume Foods of the World series, covering the cuisine of both foreign and American regions.
The Joy of Cooking by Marion Rombauer (Schibner 1997) When this classic volume was revised in 1997, there was a lot of hoo-ha. At least it still has the opossum and squirrel recipes, complete with skinning diagrams and great tips like “…don gloves to avoid possible tularemia infection.”
La Technique by Jacques Pepin (New York Times Books, 1976) I still like this clear, descriptive, generously photographed book, even though Monsieur Pepin, former personal chef to Charles de Gaulle, once told me I looked like a horse. I’m sure he meant it in a nice way.
Le Guide Culinaire By August Escoffier (John Wiley and Sons, 1983) Originally published in 1903, this is the definitive reference for haute cuisine formulas and nomenclature. As Escoffier insisted, this is not a recipe book. You’re supposed to already know the recipes.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertolle, and Simone Beck (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) Without this book, we’d all be eating crap.
The New Making of a Cook: The Art, Technique, and Science of Good Cooking by Madeleine Kamman (William Morrow, 1997) Despite a career spent in the shadow of Julia, Ms Kamman (a legitimate chef) earned the right to tell you how everything should be done, including the “how” and “why” of recipes to make you less dumb.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee (Collier Books, 1998) McGee is the Einstein of the Kitchen. (Mc=Ge2). If you want to know why blueberries are blue, or how your olfactory cells work (and if you’re a serious cook, you should), buy this book.
The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) I love this book, and not just because I helped write it. (Regular readers of this column will recognize its infectious wit.) Sherry divided the book into Master recipes, with subsequent variations, akin to the way pastry is taught in culinary school.
A Taste of Mexico by Patricia Quintana (Stuart, Tabori, and Change, 1986) Though you may never have heard of her, Ms. Quintana is a culinary rock star in Mexico. She studied with the greatest chefs of the 20th century, (Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenotre, the Troisgros brothers, Michel Gerard) and is her country’s official Culinary Ambassador. This impeccable book is thoughtfully broken down into regions, with the most authentic techniques available.
Now get reading. There will be a quiz next month.